Proper 16 / 14 Pentecost — 21 August 2016
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant – 10:00 am
[Track 1] Jeremiah 1:1-10 | Psalm 71:1-6 | Hebrews 12:18-29 | Luke 13:10-17
The leader of the synagogue [was] indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath. [Luke 13:14a]
The Gospel this morning, the healing of a crippled woman in a synagogue on a Sabbath day, sounds like it should be a very familiar story, and if you read the Gospels with any frequency, it probably is to you. There are actually a number of stories of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath and then getting grief from the Establishment for it. Mark tells a story of a man with a withered hand being healed on the Sabbath in the Capernaum synagogue, and Matthew and Luke both repeat that story [Mark 3:1-6; Matt 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11]. In addition to today’s story, Luke also tells about the Sabbath healing of a man with dropsy (a form of edema, often a symptom of a serious disorder such as heart failure) [Luke 14:1-6]; and John tells the story of the lame man healed on the Sabbath at the Beth-zatha Pool in Jerusalem [John 5:1-18]. What amazed me when I actually checked is that apparently, with the exception of this one, we have almost never told any of these Sabbath-healing stories in the Gospel at the Sunday Eucharist! (We do tell the story of the healing on the Sabbath of the man born blind in Lent in Year A, and Mark’s story occasionally but not often gets told in the early summer of Year B.) The other stories don’t get told on Sundays. But these are important stories, and it is a mistake to overlook them.
It’s pretty straightforward: Jesus goes to synagogue on the Sabbath and sees this crippled woman, all bent over, and he heals her. He sets her free, as Jesus says and the Gospel recounts. Well, the leader of the synagogue – in Greek he is called the archisynagogos, perhaps we might say the president of the synagogue, not a teaching rabbi, but something like the senior warden – anyway, this guy goes all bananas because technically it’s against the Law of Moses to “work” on the Sabbath. “You broke the rules!” he accuses Jesus. Jesus of course has little patience with that kind of nonsense, tells him so, and the crowd cheers. (Yay!)
But this brings up a very fundamental issue in what we call moral theology, one which the Church has often dodged, as have other people trying to live in faith. What is the place of “the rules” in determining moral behavior?
One way in which this question is sometimes phrased is: “Is a certain act wrong because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because it is wrong?”
(Are there any of you who when you are reading a book turn straight to the last page to see how it comes out? To you let me say that on this particular last page these two questions converge; but I think it matters how we get there. Which is why even if you have peeked at the last page of your book, you probably still read it anyway to see how it gets there!)
Some folks have traditionally opted for the first understanding, that a certain act is wrong because God forbids it. Typically, the source for the understanding that God does forbid a certain act is the Scriptures. This certain act is wrong because “it says so in the Bible.” This approach may be, and indeed often is, hard to follow in practice, but, as the old cell-phone commercial puts it, “It’s not complicated.” Here are the rules: obey them. On the surface this seems to be what Jesus is telling the lawyer (an expert in the rules!) in the Gospel a few weeks ago – love God, love your neighbor. But the lawyer is a good enough lawyer that he sees where this needs to go: “Yes, but who is my neighbor?” [Luke 10:29] Maybe it is a little complicated! “It says so in the Bible” is a lot like the old maps of the world that noted around the edges, “Here there be dragons.” The moral guidance may seem simple and straightforward, but be careful! There have been those who have argued, “God says, ‘You shall not murder,’ but if God had commanded instead, ‘Off anybody who seriously annoys you,’ then that would be right.” And I think some folks have thought that. And in fact in some places in the Bible God does command that! (Jihad justifies all. And let us not think that so-called “radical Islamists” are the only people who have operated on this basis. So have we. But I digress.) “It is wrong simply because God forbids it” can lead to a very arbitrary reading of moral obligation.
Behind this is a very strong belief in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, a doctrine particularly important in Calvinism and other what we might call “conservative evangelical” communities. As well it should be. Except that we need to understand that God is sovereign as God defines sovereignty, not as we would define sovereignty if we were sovereign. The “sovereignty of God” has been used, and is still being used, to justify a lot of Bad Stuff.
On the other hand, to say that God forbids a certain act because it is wrong (rather than the other way around) is not to constrain God within a moral reality that is larger than God. God is not bound by moral rules. God is bound only by God’s faithfulness to God’s own nature. To the extent that moral rules reflect God’s own being – which of course is Love, as revealed preeminently in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – then what those rules express is valid and binding upon us. God calls us, and commands us if you will, to live and act in accordance with God’s own nature, which is Love: to live, as we say and as Jesus said, in God’s Kingdom.
There is of course the danger that we will use “Love” as an excuse to run amuck over the moral tradition. The moral rules, at least most of them, exist for a reason. They reflect the moral experience and wisdom of millennia of human community life. Any exceptions should be made with great hesitation and trepidation. But the rules themselves are not their own justification, and even as they are ultimately rooted in the being and nature of God, the rules are in themselves still human constructs. And part of our moral obligation is to seek to perceive the divine reality that underlies them. Whatever the Fourth Commandment says about the Sabbath, the primary moral obligation in this case is to heal the crippled. As Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” [Mark 2:27]